novi_sadFor many years, there’s been a handful of books that, at least for me, exemplify what post-apocalyptic fiction should be and what it can achieve in terms of serving as mirrors for human nature when faced with Armageddon: Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Swan Song by Robert R. McCammon, Blindness by José Saramago, and Alas Babylon by Pat Frank. Now Jeff Jackson, author of the dark, critically acclaimed Mira Corpora, has joined this elite group with Novi Sad, a depressive, gloomy narrative that is as profound and smart as any of the aforementioned classics but somehow manages to deliver the same punch in less than 100 pages.

51h6MXJbAjL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_On its face, minimalism might seem like an ironic term for fiction—one more suited to architecture or interior design—but in describing the style of writing that still dominates many MFA programs, it’s entirely fitting. Featuring spare prose and terse descriptions of the everyday, this is the manner of literary writing most easily taught, most simply reduced to a matter of craft. Often purposefully lacking in plot and story—and stripped mercilessly of personality—minimalism in its most realistic form can become a study not in nonfiction but in a sort of antifiction, work that may qualify as literary in ambition, but not effect. Unable to animate the seemingly realistic world it has created, minimalism often fails the most basic of literary tests. Like a song sung to perfect pitch, but without passion, minimalistic fiction can want for soul. It can lack magic.

For the sake of context, please allow me to introduce a few of the particularly hush-hush intrigues surrounding Steve Erickson’s back catalogue:

Originating from the point where the printed text begins to shape tunnels and T’s and question marks, torn out pages of Our Ecstatic Days (2005) can be arrayed in a Spira Mirabilis that produces an image of the Tiananmen Square protestor…

Editions of Tours Of The Black Clock (1989) printed after Y2K retain the characters and locales of the original, but subplots and chronologies have been so materially altered that readers from different millennia have, in fact, waded through entirely different texts…

Brian Conn’s The Fixed Stars is a difficult book, difficultly written. Ulysses. Samuel Beckett. Our literary tradition often revolves around authors of this sort, works of this type, the utter complexity of a book that demands attention, requires it, and makes for itself, in the process, a string of readers as enemies. This is not to say that Conn is Beckett (he isn’t) or that The Fixed Stars is Ulysses (it isn’t) but rather simply to head this review with a reminder to both the reader and myself: sometimes books are difficult.

The inscription preceding Drew Magary’s first novel, The Postmortal (Penguin, August 2011), is a quote from the band Mastodon. Though appropriate for a story about a species in peril, this reference is an unfortunate omen for the novel to come. Mastodon, for the uninitiated, is a popular (and pretty damn great) metal band whose shows are so notoriously populated by knuckle-dragging testosterone junkies that I’ve always been afraid to attend. As a 30-year-old lady geek, this band and many aspects of Magary’s novel are fantastic in concept, exclusionary in practice.

Charles and Eli Sisters are infamous murderers for hire, and Patrick deWittt’s The Sisters Brothers follows them on what will end up being their final assignment for the Commodore: to hunt down Hermann Kermit Warm, a red-bearded man who has invented a prospector’s dream in the midst of the California gold rush. The premise and the environment and the style are all vehemently western, but deWitt’s second novel takes the western genre to a phenomenally endearing place.

Typically, Jesse Ball has a keen penchant for literally leading us in loops, in and out of doors and through buildings and up and down stairs, turning the reader into a steady-cam following a single character through one enormous and complex maze. Ball does this with seeming ease and, for the most part, with entertaining and valuable writing (see his previous novels Samedi the Deafness and The Way Through Doors). Of course the danger in this kind of writing is that the narrative can get so gummy or the book so perpetually interwoven, that the reader is brought to a stop, left standing on the side of a busy street with no crosswalk in sight, confused at where to go next. But just when I was hitting this point in my reading of Ball’s work, The Curfew appeared, and I found myself relaxing back into the former days of Ball’s more poetically inclined work, reminded of how good he is at making emotional leaps. The Curfew didn’t lose me at a single point, didn’t stop me from reading once, and in fact the simplicity of it kept me reading late into the night or when I should have been doing other things – the drive so great that it trumped my daily routines.

Author and musician Wesley Stace has written one of the world’s few murder-music novels.  His background as a musician (by the name John Wesley Harding) supplies the technical knowledge, adding authenticity to this tale of infatuation, love, music, jealousy, and murder.  Narrator Lesley Shepherd, a music critic, tells a story at a cocktail party about Gesualdo, a musician who killed his wife in a fit of jealousy.  Charles Jessold, a boy wonder of the piano scene, becomes obsessed and inspired by Gesualdo’s legacy and models various aspects of his own life after Gesualdo’s.  Shepherd, along with most people who encounter Jessold, in turn becomes somewhat obsessed with Jessold, vying for his attention and even turning a cheek when Jessold takes Shepherd’s wife as a lover.

Jamie Iredell’s The Book of Freaks serves as a post-modern encyclopaedia of sorts; a collection of observations on the varied populations and situations of the world in the 21st century, arranged, conveniently, alphabetically. It’s much in the vein of the better-known Stuff White People Like, although without the overarching tongue-in-cheek approach. Rather, Iredell has created a mixed bag of sorts: some of the articles are dripping with snark and subjectivity (ENVIRONMENTALISTS: These humans have taken a political and ethical point of view and transformed it into a religion), while some verge on the meditative (LEGLESS MAN: Today you crossed your legs while eating your sandwich, while the legless man-clearly a veteran:tattoes, grizzled gray beard-chewed along jabbering at you).

Implied memoir and autobiographical details in novels are de rigeur and nearly quaint in this age of the tell-all and ghosted celebrity bio, yet the autobiographical parallels in Thaddeus Rutkowski’s Haywire with its Chinese mother and Polish-American father and mixed-race protagonist and his siblings seem nothing but authentic and original. It’s the subtle and endearing rhythm of the rural Pennsylvanian family that reminds one of the kooky coming-of-age narrators found in such presumed fact-limned-for-fiction classics as Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, Thumbsucker by Walter Kirn and The Fuck-Up by Arthur Neserian.

Avi Heyer, the protagonist of Alan Michael Parker’s second novel, Whale Man, is no Captain Ahab, but he’s still obsessed with a whale. It’s just that Avi’s whale is one that he longs to build on his mother’s front lawn out of plywood, two-by-fours, and canvas. And it isn’t overweening pride that causes him to chase his whale—it’s a dream. That and money. And a girl named Lima Bean.

The Silence of Trees is a modern American narrative steeped in fairy tale. Though some scenes are rather laborious, most provide excellent vehicles for conveying Ukranian folklore and religion, the surrealism of war and immigration, and a woman sharing her story with both bluntness and wonder, the mixed result of finding her own voice after decades of restrained living.

An idea familiar not simply to fans of the Godzilla film franchise—wherein a fire-breathing lizard of monstrous proportions makes his destructive way through the city of Tokyo with destructive results—is that the creature is a metaphor for the results of the weaponization of the atom. That is, the monster is the monstrous indifference and the monstrous destructive force of the bombs called Little Boy and Fat Man which were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively, three days apart in August, 1945. In fact, the destruction left in the aftermath of the bombs was still present in the minds of those who made the Godzilla movies. It was a marker for them. They endeavored to create, to recapture the look of that destruction when they made the films. It was always present, always a part of the story.

Is anything “real” in Lars Iyer’s Spurious? Is any element of the narrative or environment more than a manifestation of the existential anxieties of the novel’s first-person protagonist, also named Lars, whose cruel and slightly more successful friend W. relentless taunts and berates him, and whose horrible apartment is being slowly overcome by “the damp”?

The idea of the North as an escape is one that has permeated literature. Whether it’s the idiocy of youth reflected in Into the Wild or career happenstance, as in The Cloud Atlas by Liam Callanan, places like Alaska and Canada have always held a mystique. There is a certain hope for misfits and those looking for an exit from a tired lifestyle.